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One Type of Voter Was Uniquely Vulnerable to Donald Trump and Brexit: Study

A new Social Psychological and Personality Science study published Thursday found that “neurotic traits positively predicted” shares of voters who opted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election or to “leave” in the Brexit vote that same year.


According to University of Austin psychology professor Sam Gosling—one of the study’s co-authors—of the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism), ”regions highest on neuroticism are particularly receptive to political campaigns that emphasize danger and loss and that previous campaigns have not tapped into these themes as strongly as we saw in 2016.”

The study, spearheaded by Queensland University of Technology psychologist Martin Obschonka, analyzed personality data from 17,217 Britons and over 3 million U.S. participants, testing for “regional prevalence of neurotic personality traits”—including anxiety, and depression.

The researchers them compared those traits with models previously used to predict voting behavior, namely openness and conscientious. As ZMEscience notes, “past studies have shown that low openness and high conscientiousness are good indicators of conservative political views.”

“The models traditionally used for predicting and explaining political behavior did not capture an essential factor that influenced people’s voting decisions in 2016,” Obschonka said.

Researchers found higher levels of anxiety in regions that voted for Trump and Brexit, and Science Daily reports those traits were even stronger “when considering Trump gains since the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate.”

In England, rural areas “and the industrialized centers have higher neurotic traits, and higher Brexit votes,” the report notes. “Trump gains (over Romney’s level of support) and higher neurotic traits overlap. The ‘rust belt’ shows a concentration of both neuroticism and Trump gains.”

The researchers say Trump’s gains on Romney in these regions “underscores our initial assumption” that neurotic individuals were drawn to Trump’s “Make American Great Again” message.

Obschonka’s team said their findings are “consistent with the idea that populist campaigns played on the fears of the voters,” adding “campaigns that draw on fear should be particularly compelling to people already prone to being anxious.”

But why did neuroticism win out in these regions, as opposed to openness and conscientiousness—the Big Five personality traits more frequently associated with voter behavior?

“We propose a kind of ‘sleeper effect,’” Obschonka said. “Under normal conditions these traits have no influence, but in certain circumstances, widespread anxiety and fear in a region have the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitical landscape.”

“Both campaigns traded on themes of fear, lost pride and loss aversion which tap into fear-prone personalities; a construct not previous associated with the behavior of voters,” the researched added. Obschonka described this voting behavior as “irrational” because “it was not predictable by means of rational models.”

“So the campaigns of fear worked,” Obschonka said.

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